EA’s Medal of Honor has given way to Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty series thanks to its blend of fast action against a historical backdrop along with a diverse set of viewpoints not the least of which is in putting the player in a Russian tank. Where did the series go wrong? What did Call of Duty do that put Medal of Honor back on the drawing board? Was it the departure of 2024 alums from the series? Or was it something else entirely that kept players from feeling the same way as they first did with Allied Assault? In loading up Pacific Assault, I finally had a chance to experience the franchise from the Pacific Theater and discover that sometimes reality does not translate well into fantasy.
Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault island hopped its way across the Pacific on my PC.
Pacific Assault places the player into the training boots of Tommy Conlin, a good ol’ boy that joins the marines and takes part in a few of the most brutal land campaigns fought across the Pacific. From boot camp to Pearl Harbor, and then across the ocean to Guadalcanal and the gateway island of Tarawa, the player will experience the conflict from Tommy’s perspective as he fights to not only save his own life, but that of his comrades in arms.
In keeping with the previous installments, Tommy’s story and that of his friends is told with plenty of Hollywood style theatrics and historical clips that help to create the feeling of a war film inspired by Spielberg or HBO’s Band of Brothers. The menu shares Allied Assault‘s war-time trappings with every option bringing the player to a section of a tent filled with radio equipment, a steam trunk containing souvenirs from previous battles, and a few of Tommy’s friends as they polish weapons or pass the time playing cards. If there’s one thing that the Medal of Honor consistently does better than Call of Duty, its in all of the little things that make it feel very much like a WW2 inspired production. Even radio chatter filled with news from the United States and the progress of the war as the player moves through the main campaign adds even more flavor to the title, and this is just in the menu system.
Tommy’s story is filled with a lot of these small details. There are even ‘Hero Moments’ that the player can collect from the missions, hidden goals that can fill up that steamer trunk with trinkets with which the player can reminisce about certain moments from the main campaign. The story isn’t bad…at first. When it starts asking Tommy to become a one man do-it-all is when it begins to stretch its credibility past the breaking point.
Anyone familiar with an FPS won’t find too many surprises with Pacific Assault‘s controls. Squad commands are introduced via arrow keys to order Tommy’s comrades to rally around him, give him covering fire, charge ahead, or pull back. Tommy can’t use these commands all the time, though, and is restricted to only to specific moments when he can try and get everyone out of hot water or dump them into it. Healing wounds now depends on whether you have a corpsman nearby willing to get over to help Tommy out, leaving both open to any attacks while he bandages Tommy up.
Healing packs are still around, but it’ll be the corpsman medic that will be doing most of the damage control as long as the player can keep them safe since the packs are incredibly rare. They also only have so many supplies on them at any time, forcing the player to be a lot more cautious about wading out into the middle of a firefight every time one breaks out which will be quite often. While it helps to keep the player in the game, it often comes down to passively waiting for the medic to come to aid you or just waiting for the enemy to finally finish you off. Or just lying there and bleeding to death as Tommy’s life starts to flash before his eyes. Most of Tommy’s squad mates won’t necessarily die as long as the team medic can get to them when they’re down, although the player will eventually die if the medic fails to get them in time or if an enemy arrives to shoot Tommy in the face which also happens often. This adds an added incentive to try and keep everyone alive, especially the medic.
The AI for your team mates does a decent job in keeping most of them alive as they try to move into cover, yell commands, and generally attempt to help keep the enemy off of Tommy’s back when they’re together. But they’ll also occasionally run right into the line of fire…sometimes yours…or just stand at a certain spot waiting for you to hit a scripted mark so that everyone can move ahead while being pelted by machine gun fire. At worst, they’ll ignore enemy soldiers and run past them to catch up with the player, even if the player is down and an enemy is standing over him with a bayonet. Or trap the player in between them and some part of the environment as they move around, forcing a reload. There are scripted events in the game to help set up certain scenarios, but the script that Tommy’s fellows occasionally follow results in odd behavior such sitting at one spot until the player trips some kind of trigger, yelling at him to hurry even when the player is fighting to keep Tommy alive because he went ahead alone to do what needed to be done.
The player can only carry two weapons at any one time, along with a few grenades, satchel charges, and a pair of binoculars to scout out what’s ahead. Additional weapons include whatever Tommy can pick up from the Imperial Japanese Army along the way, including portable anti-tank weapon and machine gun emplacements that can be used to set up nasty surprises for the enemy.
EA developed a new engine to power Pacific Assault and have made use of Havok physics to lend a degree of detail to the war exploding all around the player. The jungles of Guadalcanal and the special effects that fill the screen with booming explosions and devastating firepower when artillery comes calling look pretty good even after two years, with shadows playing off of the detailed weapons that will make up the player’s arsenal of freedom among many other small details. But at the same time, there are also quite a few washed out textures, flat poly bushes in the rough, and getting stuck on unseen collision boxes in the terriain. The characters do have quite a bit of detail, especially when it comes to their animations ranging from the hand signals that they give each other to the medic throwing up as he treats the worst of Tommy’s wounds.
The AI does a decent job in keeping the team together and in making the enemy more than just targets waiting to be shot. Foes will move from cover to cover, take advantage of it, and will charge like mad at the player armed with a bayonet. It can also be frustrating as it can often see the player through cover and it isn’t unusual to be shot several times and never be able to really see where it is coming from. The player can quicksave anywhere, and quickloads will be seeing a lot of use as the player tries to get a bead on the bad guy before their precious health is bled out especially when they don’t want to use up that last bandage the medic has left.
The voice acting isn’t bad overall and many of the characters play off of each other well in many of the cutscenes between the missions and during the actual battles. You don’t really get a sense of more than that, however, but it works in building up a kind of impact certain scenes are scripted to have. Japanese soldiers also speak actual Japanese complete with subtitles for the player if they want to know what they’re saying when they’re not attacking. As for the music, it’s not bad but if you’ve heard one Hollywood flavored WW2 inspired score, then you’ve heard everything that this one has to offer.
Pacific Assault crushed machines that weren’t ready for its cutting edge graphics when it first came out, including mine before I had made a few upgrades. Today, those same graphics don’t look too bad but the gameplay doesn’t go too far out of its way to do anything radically different since the squad mechanic is only used at certain points and health simply takes the role of a medic. Because of the high requirements upon its initial release as well as a series of problems with online gameplay that had plagued it, not the least of which requiring players to register with EA before embarking on their online tours of duty, its no surprise that this title has gotten something of a bad rap. Add to this the long load times that even today are annoying to sit through turning quickloads into dreaded moments of waiting, and one can only imagine what players with less than capable boxes two years ago had to put up with.
The repetitive nature of the gameplay is what hurts the single player campaign the most, especially in Guadalcanal, where Call of Duty kept things interesting with a variety of missions spread out across three different viewpoints. While it can be argued that this kind of repetition simulates the kind of action soldiers had to contend with there, there is a fine line between what some consider ‘real’ and what other players consider ‘fun’. Add to this a kind of story that stretches credibility by making Tommy the ultimate go-to-guy for everything, and WW2 buffs might be laughing more than they find themselves shooting at the enemy at certain points. Even for Hollywood, this really pushes the envelope and not in a good way.
The best example of this is at one point in the game when the player will need to fly a mouse driven plane proving that Tommy is better than R. Lee Ermee by being a fighter ace. This is where the game jumps the shark. Not only is the player stuck with a mouse driven plane which controls like a lagged, helium-filled cow with wings, but the objectives basically make Tommy out to be the WW2 version of Top Gun, throwing out any hope that it could still be something of a Band of Brothers kind of experience. Sink an IJN carrier and a destroyer? Yeah, okay. While I’m at it, I’ll fly on to Tokyo and take out the HQ for the Imperial Japanese Army.
Unfortunately, this kind of over-the-top gameplay would be revisited in European Assault, further distancing itself from the kind of gritty action found in Allied Assault or Call of Duty, with the addition of floaty icons to indicate ammo and health. It’s not hard to imagine why the Medal of Honor franchise basically gave way to Call of Duty, which introduced vehicles in United Offensive and had managed to keep the action and much of the atmosphere intact in its other iterations without trying to be too player friendly, overdosing on Hollywood cliches, repetitive gameplay, or becoming the victim of too many obvious historical gaffes.
There are also missed opportunities for missions in Pacific Assault, most notably concentrating far too much on the Guadalcanal campaign. While historically important, it wasn’t translated well in this game as it degenerated into a series of boring shootouts as the player went from one ambush to the next with little else to do but return fire and hopefully kill the nearly endless supply of soldiers that would generate themselves from midair. At one point, I had gotten bored with the exercise of shooting my way past ambushes that I’d simply run through areas to make the next checkpoint or level load, knowing that my team mates would follow behind no matter how far I left them. After Guadalcanal, the fun factor of the game came back at Tarawa…but only after the bizarre act of dumping the player into a plane.
Many of the levels are extremely linear, offering only one real path with little room for much else. Forget about getting the drop on your foes or in approaching a hardened position from another direction as barricades, wreckage, and invisible walls funnel the player towards yet another setup. At least Far Cry‘s jungle made it open enough to try several different approaches to the bad guys which players who have experienced that title may miss.
Missions that could have taken the player to Southeast Asia, MacArthur’s return to the Philippines, the assault on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, the defense of Singapore from the Empire of Japan, or even the landings on Okinawa, were completely ignored in Pacific Assault. Maybe they could have been done as part of an expansion pack, but we’ll probably never know.
Across the Pacific
There aren’t many WW2 FPS titles based in the Pacific theater, and Pacific Assault was to be the next major chapter of the series for the PC when it had come out. It isn’t a terrible game, but it feels much like a missed opportunity by EA to challenge Call of Duty‘s arrival on the WW2 scene by swamping the more interesting elements of its gameplay in sticking to a basic formula. Whether it’s due to complacency in the Medal of Honor name, an unwillingness to break with the formula because it had worked so well in previous iterations, or a combination of both factors among others that have kept the series from innovating too far beyond eye candy and audio effects, it’s hard to say but it hasn’t helped the series out from its slump. Far Cry had managed to bring in an open ended jungle battlezone prior to Pacific Assault‘s release, and Call of Duty brought players into the boots of several soldiers across the European theater to add a welcome touch of diversity, making EA’s formulaic effort seem even more behind the times. And that was in 2004.
Also be prepared to throw out any kind of historical accuracy or tongue-in-cheek considerations when you experience first hand how to sink a carrier task force by yourself or plod through mind numbingly boring missions in the jungles of Guadalcanal as enemies literally appear out of nowhere. There’s multiplayer, also, with a variety of modes to tackle although there’s not a whole lot of action out there for a title that is this old…unless it happens to be Call of Duty or Battlefield 1942. But for the price that it’s going for now, WW2 fans might want to pick this up just because it is a Medal of Honor title and one of the few that cater to the brutal ground campaigns fought across the Pacific.
– World 1-1